Senior Nutrition – Blog Post
Martha’s Senior Gourmet, a home meal delivery service that was then based in southern California (but has since expanded), needed some blog posts to boost engagement and improve SEO. This is one of the blog posts that we used to help them increase readership. Since these posts were unveiled, Martha’s has expanded from the San Diego area into three states and 18 markets.
Meals for Alzheimer’s Patients
We write a lot about preparing meals for seniors that have multiple dietary restrictions, and one of the ways we can do this is by being creative with our ingredients, cooking methods, and recipes. But if someone you love is suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia, their mental status can create additional difficulties in getting them properly nourished.
Getting Them to Eat
Medications (either for Alzheimer’s or for other conditions) can dramatically impact a senior’s appetite, causing them to refuse food when it is served. Additionally, dental problems or digestive problems can cause eating to be painful, reducing their willingness to eat at mealtime. In advanced cases, the senior may not be able to tell you what’s wrong, leaving you to play a guessing game to solve the problem.
A craving or preference for “comfort foods” is not unusual, and some recent studies have found that Alzheimer’s patients develop cravings for sugary foods and simple starches. If the same patient is diabetic or on a specialized diet, getting them to eat lima beans instead of ice cream may not be easy.
First, be patient. If you’re caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia, seek support, because it’s not easy on the caregivers. Second, remind yourself that when you were a child, your parent or grandparent probably had the exact same battle with you!
Alzheimer’s and Dietary Restrictions
Alzheimer’s itself seldom comes with serious dietary restrictions, although some doctors and nutritionists do recommend a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables for Alzheimer’s patients. The more pressing concern is that people with Alzheimer’s and age-related dementia often have other medical issues that require a specialized diet plan.
When your loved one insists on having ice cream for dinner, it can be difficult to explain that they’re on a diabetic and heart-healthy diet and cannot have sugar or dairy products.
The Problem of Traditional Restricted Diets
Alzheimer’s patients and dementia patients frequently experience weight loss. Many patients will refuse to eat if they don’t recognize the food that you’re serving them. A normal adult will often be willing to try a stir-fry with rice noodles, but to an Alzheimer’s patient, that stuff on the plate doesn’t even look like it’s real food. It would be like filling your plate with dog food and expecting you to chow down.
In many cases, seniors may be seeing doctors who have little or no experience with Alzheimer’s or dementia patients. While a gerontologist probably knows how to work with Alzheimer’s patients, a cardiologist may not understand the challenges associated with imposing a restrictive diet on a patient who doesn’t have the same mental and emotional capacity as a normal and healthy adult. Dieticians and nutritionists who don’t have a lot of experience designing meal plans for seniors may fall into the same trap.
Challenge #1: Sight
The first challenge in serving a patient with Alzheimer’s or dementia is the sight. If the food presented looks unfamiliar, the patient may simply decide that it’s not real food and never move further. Even when the ingredients themselves are familiar to the patient, the presentation may be unusual and new. It’s probably safe to say that a lot of severe Alzheimer’s and dementia patients wouldn’t recognize the expert plating done at a five-star restaurant as being a food dish. Plating and presentation that seems too “fancy” can be just as distracting and troublesome as a presentation that looks unappetizing.
Challenge #2: Smell
Once an Alzheimer’s or dementia patient has decided to look more closely at the dish being offered, they will often try to smell the dish before tasting. The problem is that in many of these patients, age or condition may have dulled or changed the sense of smell. With heavily spiced dishes, they can probably still be smelled, but any strong smells may discourage the patient from taking a bite. More mild aromas like those associated with “comfort foods” or “kid foods” will often be more familiar.
Challenge #3: Taste
Unfortunately, there’s no vegan cheese substitute that tastes exactly like dairy cheese (although many come close). And even the best tasting food may be rejected by an Alzheimer’s patient if it tastes unfamiliar. If the patient remembers macaroni and cheese made with cheddar cheese, they aren’t likely to feel comfortable eating macaroni and cheese made with vegan cheese.
On a restrictive diet, the key is to find foods that can retain a fairly familiar taste despite being made more nutritiously. Italian foods, for example, can often be familiar and healthy, and rich tomato-based sauces make a good place for hiding additional nutrition. Just like a parent may finely chop broccoli to add to spaghetti sauce, the same principles can often be applied to feeding patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Challenge #4: Texture
If the taste fits, the texture may not. Once the ingredients are altered, the texture may be different from what the patient remembers or associates with the food. Perhaps the biggest challenge with delivered meals is that they can easily be overcooked, especially with vegetables. A meal that is perfectly cooked in the kitchen may, during delivery, retain enough heat to continue cooking; this makes the pastas soggy and the vegetables limp.
Challenge #5: Nutrition
While feeding your loved one the macaroni and cheese they crave might make them happy, a restrictive diet of comfort foods doesn’t have the nutrition necessary to fuel them on a long-term basis. Because Alzheimer’s patients and dementia patients are often more likely to be injured than other mentally sound patients in the same age range, it’s important that they have adequate nutrition to help them heal from their injuries or illnesses.
Severe Alzheimer’s and Dementia
In severe cases, Alzheimer’s or dementia patients may face challenges eating. In later stages of the illness, they may lose the muscle coordination necessary to chew and swallow food, so it may be necessary to use smoothies or blended foods to help them stay nourished. In very severe cases, a feeding tube may be necessary. If your loved one has progressed to the point that they can no longer chew or swallow effectively, you should talk with their doctor about alternative ways to keep them properly nourished.